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  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 8, 2020
    Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    For NORML’s 50th anniversary, every Friday we will be posting a blog from NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup as he reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the second in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    The National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse

    As one reviews the modern history of marijuana policy in this country, beginning with the adoption of federal marijuana prohibition in 1937 (i.e., the Marijuana Tax Act) and continuing to where we are today with 33 states having legalized the medical use of marijuana and 11 states and the District of Columbia having legalized adult recreational use, perhaps the single most important step along the way was the report issued in 1972 by the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse.

    Other extraordinary breakthroughs in the movement to end prohibition and legalize marijuana include the adoption of legal medical use by California in 1996, the first state to take that step; and the adoption of legal recreational use in Colorado and Washington in 2012, the first two states to adopt a legal regulated market.

    But none of that would have likely been possible without the enormously powerful report, entitled Marijuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding, issued by the so-called Marijuana Commission (or sometimes the Shafer Commission, after the commission’s chair, former Republican PA governor Raymond Shafer). At the time, Gallup polling found only 12% of the country supported legalizing marijuana; 88% of the public opposed legal marijuana. Decades of government Reefer Madness propaganda had been effective and had left the great majority of the public with an exaggerated fear of the dangers of smoking marijuana. With that level of misinformation, legal reform was simply not possible.

    And with that history of government anti-marijuana hysteria, initially most observers did not expect much better from this new federal commission. It is worth noting that this commission was created while anti-marijuana zealot Richard Nixon was president, and 9 of the 13 commissioners were appointed by President Nixon, with the remaining four being selected from among the sitting members of Congress. So, there was real fear the commissioners would not treat this study of marijuana policy seriously, but that they would simply recommend what they all knew Nixon wanted; more Reefer Madness. 

    But after a year of study and public and private hearings, in a totally unexpected move, on March 22, 1972, the congressionally-created commission took the extraordinary step of telling the truth about marijuana!

     Here is the crux of their findings: 

    “[T]he criminal law is too harsh a tool to apply to personal possession even in the effort to discourage use,” concluded the Commission, which included several conservative appointees of then-President Richard Nixon. “It implies an overwhelming indictment of the behavior which we believe is not appropriate. The actual and potential harm of use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes only with the greatest reluctance.

    “… Therefore, the Commission recommends … [that the] possession of marijuana for personal use no longer be an offense, [and that the] casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration, no longer be an offense.”

    While the Marijuana Commission did not have the political courage to propose full legalization with a regulated market, they nonetheless recognized the essential fact that there was no justification for treating marijuana smokers as criminals. And even without a legally regulated market, their recommendations, something we subsequently learned to call “decriminalization,” sought to end criminal penalties and arrests for the overwhelming majority of marijuana consumers. if implemented would eliminate approximately 90% of all marijuana arrests, a step well-worth supporting. 

    Ironically, the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse came about as part of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, an otherwise harsh anti-drug law that remains the federal law even today, and includes marijuana, along with drugs such as heroin, in Schedule I, the federal classification for the most dangerous drugs, and defines marijuana as having no accepted medical use!

    The prior federal anti-drug law had been declared unconstitutional in a high-profile case involving Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor famous for urging people to “Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out.” Leary had been busted by the feds coming back into the country from Mexico with a significant quantity of marijuana in 1969 and given a 30-year prison sentence, and on appeal his lawyers argued the Marijuana Tax Act required him to violate his 5th Amendment protections against self-incrimination. The federal courts eventually agreed and threw the law out, leaving the federal government without any anti-drug act for a few months before enacting the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

    Congressman Ed Koch, a Democrat from New York City whose district included Greenwich Village (and who would later become its mayor) managed to get a provision added to the proposed anti-drug act to establish the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse as one small section in the new act. The commission was directed to conduct a two-year study, the first year focused on needed changes in the country’s marijuana policy and the second year to report on changes needed for other illegal drugs. 

    When the final language of the proposed new federal bill was being debated, Koch agreed, as a concession to get more conservative support for his commission proposal, that marijuana would be temporarily listed in Schedule I, pending the recommendations from the commission’s first year report on marijuana. The commission’s subsequent report made it clear that marijuana was not a serious health risk, and should certainly not be kept in Schedule I. However, as we all know, the Congress ended up ignoring the Marijuana Commission’s recommendations and marijuana remains on Schedule I still today, both exaggerating its danger to the user and prohibiting its medical use under federal law.

    But Congress had a strong incentive to pass a new federal law that could pass Constitutional scrutiny, and Nixon had little choice but to sign the bill, even with the Marijuana Commission provisions. And in late 1970 (about the same time we were starting NORML), the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was passed by Congress and signed by President Nixon. 

    And while Congress largely ignored the recommendations of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse, the commission’s determination that marijuana smoking was not a serious threat to the health of the user or to society as a whole was the most important and credible argument for ending marijuana prohibition we had ever had at our disposal. It allowed NORML to take the decriminalization proposal to state legislatures all across the country, resulting in 11 states adopting decriminalization provisions for minor marijuana offenses between 1973 and 1978. (After 1978, the mood of the country turned more conservative.) 

    In fact, the Marijuana Commission’s recommendations still today stand as the most sensible plan for dealing with marijuana to ever come out of the federal government.

     

     

  • by Keith Stroup, NORML Legal Counsel May 1, 2020
    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    NORML Founder Keith Stroup

    On NORML’s 50th anniversary, NORML’s Founder Keith Stroup reflects back on a lifetime as America’s foremost marijuana smoker and legalization advocate. This is the first in a series of blogs on the history of NORML and the legalization movement.

    Starting NORML

    At the time I was preparing to graduate from Georgetown Law School in 1968, my major focus was finding a way to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in the Vietnam war. Back then, any male who turned 18 years old was subject to the draft unless he was a full time student, a fact that caused many in my generation to stay in school as long as possible. Many of us did not understand why we were fighting an unpopular war in southeast Asia, nor did we feel it was a noble undertaking that would justify the loss of so many young American lives. (More than 58,000 Americans died in that war.)

    But I was only 24 when I graduated law school and remained eligible for the draft until I turned 27, so I was desperate to find a way to avoid it. I had contacted some volunteer lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a fine organization that had stepped up to provide legal advice to the large numbers of young men who were actively seeking to stay out of Vietnam.

    One option they offered was to put me in touch with people who could help me relocate to Canada to avoid the draft. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men who had fled to Canada by then, and a supportive community in Canada who could help these people get reestablished in their new country. The principal downside to this option was that there was no assurance the US government would ever permit these draft dodgers, as the government loved calling us, to come home. One might never again be permitted to enter the United States. This seemed too extreme for my tastes. There had to be a better option out there.

    And with the help of these NLG lawyers I found it. I applied for what was called a “critical skills deferment”. During the existence of the military draft, the government had always recognized that there are a few people whose jobs at home are so important to the war effort, or to keeping the country running smoothly so the war could be pursued, that they should not be drafted but instead should be permitted to continue their important civilian work.

    I had been offered a job on the legal staff of a newly created Congressional commission called the National Commission on Product Safety, an outgrowth of the trailblazing work of consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Importantly for my purpose was the opening paragraph of the legislation establishing the commission, declaring it was “important to the health, safety and welfare of the nation.” That language would prove useful in my application for a critical skills deferment. Just a few days before I was supposed to report for active military duty, my draft board granted me the deferment and I was allowed to work in downtown DC for the next two years, instead of going to Vietnam.

    The two years working at the commission were wonderful years. I was working as a lawyer at a prestigious Congressional commission on K Street in downtown Washington, DC instead of fighting in Vietnam. And I was learning the basic skills needed to be an effective consumer advocate from the master, Ralph Nader, whose skillful use of the media and his willingness, even eagerness, to take on major corporations, had turned him into a folk hero.

    It was the experience of working around Nader at the product safety commission that convinced me to consider using my legal training to work for the interests of American consumers. I had first started smoking marijuana when I was a first-year law student and by the time the commission came to an end, ending marijuana prohibition had become an important cause for me. I knew there was no justification for treating smokers as criminals and since I was then too old to be drafted, I decided to use my new freedom to found NORML as a consumer lobby to represent the interests of responsible marijuana smokers. I wanted to use the consumer advocate model Nader had used so successfully for product safety to challenge marijuana prohibition.

    And, as the saying goes, “the rest is history.” Fifty years and counting as we continue to fight for a world in which marijuana smokers are treated fairly in all aspects of their lives.

  • by NORML April 20, 2020

    Greetings NORML nation and we hope this email finds you safely at home and in the holiday spirit! First, we would love to share a personal 4/20 message from our Executive Director Erik Altieri:

    April 20, 2020 marks NORML’s 50th anniversary working to reform marijuana laws. We’ve represented responsible consumers for half a century, and we aren’t stopping now. Even in these uncertain times, NORML remains hard at work fighting to end America’s unjust war on marijuana. We hope this year you’ll take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, and if you’re able, make a contribution in celebration of 4/20.

    Give Now

    NORML recognizes the importance of complying with state and federal guidelines for physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is why, in the best interest of public health and safety, NORML is encouraging cannabis consumers not to congregate in groups either outdoors or indoors this 4/20.

    Instead, NORML encourages those who wish to express their support for marijuana policy reform this 4/20 to engage in the many virtual celebrations taking place throughout the day.

    Be sure to follow NORML on Facebook on 4/20 at 4PM ET to join a live chat with NORML staff!

     

    NORML Staff and NORML Chapters will be participating in the following virtual events:

     

    NORML Giveaway

    Enter and share NORML’s 4/20 Membership Pack Giveaways on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

     

    Because NORML recognizes that people worldwide often celebrate 4/20 by engaging in some form of consumption, we are once again providing best practices for consumers’ safety. These include:

    • Do not share your personal consumption devices with others
    • Seek alternative delivery devices that mitigate or eliminate one’s exposure to combustive smoke
    • Avoid unnecessary trips to dispensaries on 4/20, when they may be more crowded than usual and physical distancing may be more difficult
    • Avoid obtaining cannabis products, and vape-pens especially, from the unregulated market, as these products are of variable purity and quality and may be tainted with mold or adulterants

    Stay home and stay safe this 4/20!

    Your friends at NORML

  • by NORML April 14, 2020

    In recent days, numerous states have taken steps to ensure that state-licensed cannabis facilities are explicitly permitted to maintain operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    In several jurisdictions, lawmakers have designated these operations to be ‘essential’ to the health and well-being of the patient community. In others, regulators have either relaxed protocols or moved forward with new, emergency rules to facilitate expanded access – such as permitting patients to seek telemedicine appointments and allowing dispensaries to permit curbside pick-up and home delivery.

    NORML is encouraged that lawmakers and regulators are moving expeditiously to take these common-sense actions. State Policies Coordinator Carly Wolf said, “The reality that a growing number of jurisdictions have taken these important steps is further evidence of the degree to which above-ground cannabis access is now widely recognized to be an essential part of the fabric of our society, and is regarded as being crucial to patients’ health and welfare.”

    Below is a summary of the policies currently in place governing retail cannabis access during the COVID-19 outbreak. NORML will continue to update these policies accordingly in the coming days and weeks.

  • by Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML Development Director March 5, 2020

    2020 Virginia General AssemblyBroad changes to marijuana laws swept through the 2020 Virginia General Assembly. Today, the legislature approved SB2 and HB 972  to decriminalize marijuana possession. Those in possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use will no longer be subject to criminal prosecution and will instead face a maximum $25 civil penalty. The bipartisan, bicameral effort led by Senator Adam Ebbin (D-30) and House Majority Leader Delegate Charniele Herring (D-46), also allows for the sealing of records for misdemeanor arrests, charges, convictions, and deferred dispositions for marijuana possession from employers and schools, and redefines extractions previously considered hashish as marijuana. The legislation now heads to Governor Ralph Northam’s desk for approval.

    “This long overdue victory comes after years of sustained effort by Virginia NORML and its members. A supermajority of Virginians have for many years opposed the continued criminalization of personal possession, and the legislature has finally taken action to turn public opinion into public policy,” said NORML Development Director Jenn Michelle Pedini, who also serves as the executive director of the state affiliate, Virginia NORML.

    Commenting on the final passage, Senator Ebbin said, “this is a major step forward for criminal justice reform in Virginia. The prohibition on marijuana has clearly failed, and impacts nearly 30,000 Virginians per year. It’s well past time that we stop doing damage to people’s employment prospects, educational opportunities, and parental rights.”

    Delegate Herring said this “is an important step in mitigating racial disparities in the criminal justice system. While marijuana arrests across the nation have decreased, arrests in Virginia have increased. This bill will not eliminate the racial disparities surrounding marijuana, but it will prevent low-level offenders from receiving jail time for simple possession while we move toward legalization in coming years with a framework that addresses both public safety and equity in an emerging market.”

    Governor Northam has spoken in favor of decriminalizing marijuana violations and expunging past convictions as has Attorney General Mark Herring. “Decriminalization is an important first step on Virginia’s path towards legal, regulated adult use, and one many thought was still years away, but we cannot stop now. We’ve shown that smart, progressive reform is possible and we must keep going,” General Herring told Virginia NORML.

    The legislature has approved multiple bills that call for the study of establishing a regulatory framework for adult-use. This effort is intended to result in legislation and a report in advance of the 2021 Virginia General Assembly.

    Earlier this week, the Virginia legislature also approved Senate Bill 1015 to legalize medical cannabis and Senate Bill 976 to expand and improve the state’s nascent medical program.

    “As legislators became more comfortable with medical cannabis products, they recognized that patients and legal guardians of children and incapacitated adults need the protections of lawful possession instead of the affirmative defense. That is what SB 1015 provides — a statutory protection against prosecution, not merely an affirmative defense,” remarked Senator Dave Marsden (D-37), longtime champion of medical cannabis patients in the Commonwealth.

    “As Virginia’s program finally begins to provide patients access to products in 2020, the explicit legal protections and additional dispensing facilities established by Senator Marsden’s bills are much needed improvements from which patients and caregivers will benefit greatly,” said Pedini.

     

    This post was updated to reflect the passage of SB2  

    A complete listing of marijuana-related legislation in the 2020 Virginia General Assembly is available here. For more information, contact Jenn Michelle Pedini, NORML Development Director & Virginia NORML Executive Director.

    Become a member Virginia NORML and join the fight to reform marijuana laws in the Commonwealth. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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